How Manchester City’s Pre-Season Tour Is More Than Just Matchday

From pop-up karaoke rooms to limited edition kits with unique fonts, Manchester City’s pre-season tour of Korea and Japan is much more than three friendly matches.

To mark Manchester City’s arrival in Seoul, Puma opened a pop-up store in a prime spot in one of the city’s largest malls and sold a kit with the players’ names written in a Korean-inspired font. Fans traveled for hours early in the morning to queue ahead of the store’s opening, then stuck around for a brief visit by Jack Grealish and some other Manchester City players at lunchtime. Long before City’s clash with La Liga side Atletico Madrid, every item in the store was sold out.

Those limited edition kits, as well as scarves and Manchester City bucket hats could be seen on line six of Seoul’s subway the next day as thousands of fans, mainly in their twenties and thirties, headed to the World Cup stadium, not for a match, but to watch an open training session.

Open training sessions, along with meet-and-greets with club legends (in Manchester City’s case, Joleon Lescott and Shaun Wright-Phillips), have been a mainstay of pre-season tours, but are usually limited to a couple of hundred fans lucky enough to win a competition, or wealthy enough to afford premium tickets.

But with tickets to Manchester City’s open training session on Saturday available for just $15, fans priced out or otherwise unable to get hold of tickets to the main event on Sunday, where most tickets cost upwards of $95, at least had the chance to see their heroes in the flesh.

Some 20,000 fans took Manchester City up on the offer, cheering every shot at the open training, as well as the entrance of stars like Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland.

Head coaches each have different approaches to these open training sessions. Antonio Conte had his Tottenham Hotspur players running so hard in Seoul that they were almost vomiting by the end of a session in Seoul in 2022.

Diego Simeone took a much more relaxed approach to Atletico Madrid’s open training session on Wednesday, which was mainly an 8 vs. 9 game on a small pitch, with players separated into three teams so they had plenty of time to catch their breath. K-pop played in the background and an MC selected fans for a quiz on the big-screen to win Atletico merchandise. Wearing sunglasses, Simeone ended the session by kicking balls into the crowd. The hard tactical work had been done earlier in the day in a closed-doors session on the other side of Seoul.

Manchester City’s open session started with the big screens showing a promotional video for the club while mist sprayed into the VIP area to keep fans cool. After warming up, players did some heading and passing relays and rondos before spending the majority of the session on drills involving crossing the ball into the box, with Pep Guardiola giving one-on-one positional advice.

Tickets were still available on the day, and for fans who didn’t make the trip to watch the open training in person, a livestream with full commentary was provided by the tour’s sponsors, Coupang Play.

Korea’s answer to Amazon
Prime, Coupang Play owns the Korean streaming rights to a range of sporting events, from Formula One to the Danish Super League. Delivery company Coupang used Tottenham’s visit in 2022 to launch the platform, which was the only way to buy tickets or watch the match in Korea. This year, Coupang Play’s logos filled every inch of advertisement at the Seoul World Cup stadium and its commercials played on the stadium’s big-screen TVs during the open training. K-pop performances were planned for after the games and at half time during Atletico Madrid’s match against a K-League Allstar team on Thursday.

It costs a lot to bring Premier League teams and other top teams halfway around the world, and the risk of not recouping that fee is real. Roma, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Celtic were all due to play in Korea only for the organizer of those tours to be unable to get the finances to work.

As the soccer calendar gets more and more packed, and with clubs realistically only able to play three or four matches on tours of the other side of the world, such open training sessions give the likes of Coupang Play an extra opportunity to make the most of a Premier League team’s brief visit.

City’s match against Atletico Madrid was delayed by 40 minutes by a heavy thunderstorm which turned the steps of Seoul World Cup Stadium into a waterfall. When the match eventually started, white plastic waterproofs almost outnumbered sky blue Manchester City shirts. City started with their strongest side, minus Kevin De Bruyne who stayed on the bench.

They lost 2-1 with the game decided by two long-range efforts from Atletico’s Memphis Depay and Yannick Carrasco, and several strong tackles from both sides showed it was a proper workout for City ahead of the Community Shield next week. Such was the tightness of the schedule that Manchester City headed straight for the airport after the final whistle.